Sitting in the auditorium in the Green Haven Correctional Facility, you wouldn’t know you’re in a maximum-security prison. That is, until more than 200 men clad in state-issued green boiler suits, enter in a single-file line while flanked by corrections officers.
The men take their seats with only a faint rustling of chitchat as the stoic guards station themselves in the aisles, watching closely.
They are understandably antsy; 75 outsiders, each having endured strict security searches, are visiting the prison. Guests greet each other before settling in designated chairs across the aisle from the prisoners.
These two different audiences have come together to watch the same play, written and directed by 20 inmates in the Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program.
“All you have to do is have an audience that’s willing to believe the world that we create,” said Alkim Mills, 30, one of the inmates enrolled in RTA’s Green Haven Chapter.
Mills peers at the audience from behind the set as he prepares to rap the opening number of "Café of the Heart."
"I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m everything," he said ahead of the performance. "I don’t know if I really got words that could explain everything that is going on inside of my body, so maybe you’ll see it on stage."
The annual production is the conclusion of the participants’ hard work. Inmates and facilitators have spent nearly a year rehearsing for this performance.
But RTA’s founder, Katherine Vockins, insists, "This is not a theater program."
"We’re not teaching art for art’s sake," she said. “We’re teaching art to build skill that they need to lead productive lives inside. It’s less about being in the cast and more of doing something together. We are in this together and if we work together, we can do something powerful."
Mills draws from personal experience to portray his hot-tempered character, Frazier, a recent parolee struggling to find work.
He based the character on his own mother, who he said served 13 years in a federal prison. Now aged 50, she has trouble finding a job because of her limited skill set, Mills said.
"When I get on the phone and I call my mom, she’s going through the same thing," he said.
While Frazier experiences numerous rejections throughout the play, Mills said the character makes him hopeful he’ll be able to reinvent himself upon his release.
"A lot of great people have been in a prison," Mills said. “They come out and they do great things. It just depends on what you do while you’re here."
Mills, who is originally from Charleston, W. Va., is serving a sentence of 20 years to life for second-degree murder in the fatally shooting of Staten Island resident Frank Mehmeti in 2005. Mills, who was 17 at the time, will be eligible for parole in May 2027.
Four years ago, inspired by his mom’s own experience, he decided to join RTA.
"She was doing plays and other things with her church sisters, her Christian sisters in the jail,” he said. "And I said, 'You know what? I’m going to do something to make my mama proud, so I’m going to sign up.'"
He now credits the workshop for helping him reevaluate his life.
"I wasn’t doing [theater] in the streets," Mills said. "Well, part of the things we do in the streets is what led us here, so why aren’t we doing different things?"
The registration process for RTA is lengthy.
Depending on the facility, some inmates may need to be recommended by prison administration, and recommendations are made based on each inmate’s history and behavioral record.
While the Green Haven does not have a waiting list, Vockins said the RTA program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., which houses between 1,500 and 1,700 inmates, has 60 members and 100 others vying for a spot.
Accepted applicants then undergo an interview process with a staff member from RTA and other inmates already in the program.
Before they finally get to attend RTA meetings, applicants undergo a mandatory pre-program course taught by peer members, where they learn what is expected of them as an RTA member.
"They’re taught what our program is really about," Vockins explained. “It’s about self-development; it’s about learning new skills, learning what it means to be in unity and community. It is not about becoming an actor or a singer, although we do provide singing lessons, acting lessons and visual arts.”
Members of the RTA program are expected to participate in workshops and classes, and put in months of work before they even begin rehearsals for a performance.
“They’ll come to a production and think, ‘Hey, I want to be a star,’ and they’ll soon find out that is not what it’s about,” Vockins said. “The younger ones tend to fall away — it’s not fast enough for them. We end up with a slightly more mature membership.”
Vockins said it takes time for many inmates to accept responsibility for their convictions.
She continued, “Usually, the knuckleheads from the yard will, between maybe 7th and 11th year, realize they have to stop blaming their families, the system, the white man, or the victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and accept responsibility for what they’ve done. When they do that, they have chosen to change, and then they start to look at those positive programs to help them."
"There are not that many positive programs inside prison walls."
Joseph Striplin, a singer, songwriter and guitarist originally from the Bronx, didn’t join RTA until his 14th year of incarceration.
While he stands at barely 5 feet tall and speaks with a youthful positivity, his ambitions are huge. He dreams of singing and playing the acoustic guitar on stage in front of tens of thousands of people.
But his dream may never be realized, as Striplin is serving life without parole.
Striplin said his six-year membership with RTA has helped him come out of his shell. He’s become more comfortable with public speaking and has learned how to handle day-to-day obstacles.
"Confrontation is a big thing in prison," Striplin said. "Sometimes you may have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and empathize. That’s a big thing we learn in RTA."
Most recently, he said he was setting up for a Martin Luther King Jr. event when he was subjected to criticism by fellow inmates. Instead of lashing out, he tried to empathize and took the time to educate them.
“It really affects me personally when someone tries to talk negative about someone who did so much for the world, but I had to put myself in that person’s shoes and try to understand where they were coming from,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s a place of not knowing, and I took the time out and spoke with the guy. Sometimes that’s the case. Guys don’t have that information."
Additionally, to stay a member of RTA, inmates must remain in good standing with the prison. Bad behavior is not an option.
"When I get into an argument, when there's a situation, I think about the responsibility that I have here in this program," Striplin said. "I think about the people that I've met. I think about not letting people down, people who I've promised that I would maintain a good character and good behavior, so I think about all these things. The people that come in here and they take out of their time, it makes me want to give back too, and be just as dedicated."
Striplin was convicted of first-degree murder just after his 20th birthday for shooting a local rapper, Trimell Worrell, twice in the back outside a restaurant in 1995.
Striplin, 42, is 21 years into his sentence.
"Doing time is not easy," Striplin said. "You come [to RTA] as a home away from home away from home and you learn skills, you learn how to cope, you learn how to deal with confrontations. You learn how to deal with stress."
He added, "If it wasn’t for RTA, I don’t know where I would be, honestly."
In “Café of the Heart,” Striplin plays Alfonso Jackson, a character who grew up in group homes and finds a way to reconnect with his absent father, whom he had always believed was dead.
Striplin, who has never met his biological father, came up with the character based on his own upbringing. Still, playing the part was harder than he thought it would be.
“You stick it out because you’re dedicated and you’re committed,” he said. “Then you see what it is and you’re proud and you’re happy and you say, 'I’m glad I stuck through.'"
The group meets about three times a week after dinnertime in an empty classroom on the far end of the prison, but there’s rarely a rehearsal where every member is present.
Because of the strict schedule at the Green Haven Correctional Facility, some inmates may prioritize picking up a package or meeting with their lawyer. If an inmate is in isolation due to an infraction or violation, they will also inevitably miss rehearsal.
“In a maximum security prison, timing is fluid,” Vockins said. “You never know what is going to happen.”
Rehearsals often begin with warm-up exercises such as vocalizing and stretching.
One of Mills’ favorites involves the group standing in a circle. One performer will make a silly noise and movement to someone else in the circle. That person then makes the same gesture to another person in the circle, and so on.
“When you bring somebody inside who is coming from outside […] he’s like 250 pounds, he looks like he eats rocks for breakfast – [you think] he’s not going to do that, right?” Mills said. “But they open up, and by the time [we’re done] it’s no more stiff man. They’re loose. Things just come out, but you have to break through the shell, but it’s soft in there.”
On slower days, they sit and chat about their lives, and on busier days, they might jump straight into the action, rearranging chairs to make the space more workable.
Either way, the classroom remains a place where the inmates can let loose and bond with one another.
“Let’s keep believing each other,” RTA director Patrick Collins says at the end of a rehearsal in December as all the members put their hands together in a huddle. “We have something real special here and a lot of people are going to see it and it’s going to change some lives.”
Mills responds, on behalf of the other inmates, "That’s what’s up."
Over the last 20 years, RTA programs have covered everything from Shakespearean Tragedies to classics like “The Wizard of Oz.” But this time around, inmates worked together to create their own story, and “Café of the Heart” was born.
“It’s three stories intertwined in one – stories about 'Café of the Heart' being a sanctuary in the ghetto,” said Pedro Rosario, the lead writer. “There’s a lot of violence and drugs and stuff. It’s almost an analogy to what RTA is in [prison].”
Rosario, a two-year veteran of RTA, had not written much before “Café of the Heart.”
“It feels surreal that I’ve actually written a lot of this script,” Rosario, 44, said. “This is my first time ever seeing anything [I created] actually come to life.”
Rosario, who said his friends started calling him “Puerto Rican Shakespeare” after writing the script, plays Boxed-In Joe, a homeless man who has been living outside the café since his daughter overdosed in the streets.
“I just wanted to send a message back to the kids, to understand the lives they’re living out there, this is what this is about,” Rosario said. “It’s going to lead to broken friendships, false friendships, imprisonment and a lot of pain and suffering. You hurt other people when you commit crime. A lot of us don’t really understand that.”
Rosario speaks with a stutter that facilitators say has improved significantly since he became a member of RTA.
A drug-related incident landed Rosario in prison for manslaughter at just 18 years old. He said he spent much of his teens as a drug dealer after learning the trade from his father.
He was also convicted of second-degree murder stemming from a 1992 triple homicide.
Rosario was sentenced to 41 years to life and said his son, Pedro Markees Rosario, is the reason he stays strong.
“There comes a time when you have to take responsibilities for certain decisions you make,” he said. “[This program] is my own form of redemption. It’s my way of not only making the facility proud, the staff here, from administration down to officers to my peers — but my 13-year-old son, who I really did this for.”
RTA says that less than seven percent of its graduates return to prison after their release, significantly lower than the average recidivism rate in New York State of 40 percent. The national average is more than 60 percent.
An independent study also revealed that more RTA participants complete educational degrees beyond their GED while incarcerated and are also more engaged in classes.
According to RTA, many previous members are also likely to return to prison as teachers or volunteer with at-risk teens after their release.
“Did they make mistakes? Absolutely. Should they be in prison? Absolutely. Should they have a chance to change? Absolutely,” Vockins said. “Custodialship and punishment, I understand, but rehabilitation is required in America.”
"It’s important work," said RTA director Patrick Collins. “It’s important that these people are given the chance, that they’re not thrown away, you know? They’re human beings."
Collins, who appeared on the 1980s TV show The Jeffersons, first encountered RTA’s program when a friend, who was a facilitator, invited him to class 12 years ago.
"I’m a wimpy kid from the Bronx, and being in a place like this — I never imagined myself,” he joked. “In the room were like 28 guys who were a lot bigger than me, and in prison.”
To his surprise, they immediately recognized him for some of his roles and he quickly forgot his fears as they discussed what it was like being an actor. "From then on, I never looked back," Collins said.
Actor Kate Kenney, who plays Maggie in the “Café at Heart,” said her start in RTA unfolded in a similar way.
Kenney, the only non-inmate actor in the production, was looking for a volunteer opportunity during college in 2010 when she stumbled upon RTA.
“I was nervous, honestly. I didn’t know what their crimes were, I didn’t know what the level of violence that they were used to. I see so many things on television where there’s a riot every day [in prison] or there’s a big fight or something — am I going to be walking by that on my way to the classroom?” she said. “Then coming inside and actually putting faces and names to this unknown quantity of people behind bars, that’s what really changed it.
“It’s the men that got over those nerves for me. They are so welcoming and so happy to have us there that they made me relax."
What was supposed to be a brief, six-month commitment ended up impacting her life forever.
She has since gotten her Master’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in correction and offender rehabilitation, and hopes to continue being involved with changing the way the inmate population is perceived.
“Before joining the program, I really gave no thought to the correctional system at all. I knew it existed, but it was just something that was over there," she said. “Being here, I have faces. I have names. I have stories of people. I can’t ignore it any more. I see that there’s a problem that needs to be solved and the more of us that can get involved, the better."
Kenney’s character, Maggie, is the main love interest of Mobi, played by Farhan Ahmed.
Winning her hand is Mobi’s main motivation, and he believes he will succeed once he earns his New York City taxi medallion.
Ahmed, 36, and his on-stage persona have one obvious thing in common: Both hail from Punjab, Pakistan.
While Mobi often finds himself the target of racial slurs from Frazier, who calls him both an “A-rab” and “habibi” in the same breath, he always lands on his feet, responding simply, "I laughed so much that I fell off my camel […] Come up with something unique or leave the comedy alone."
Ahmed explained he created the role loosely based on himself.
“I’m from Pakistan and I had the accent, so that’s kind of like stereotyping myself," he said. “Yet I think the main thing I relate to [is] that notion of innocence. Mobi thinks like he’s really in love and this whole medallion, that’s his whole life."
Ahmed moved to America when he was 20.
Two years later, he and an older relative, Muhammed Hanif, then 42, lured his brother-in-law Arshad Mahmood into their apartment and beat him to death.
According to reports from the time, Mahmood was having an affair with Hanif’s wife and was extorting her for money.
A New York Post article from the time reported a police source saying the men “were proud of it.” The article continued, “The men were shocked to be placed under arrest after telling their 'heroic' stories."
By 24, Ahmed pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Hanif was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 years.
He said he believes his crime tore his family apart.
"My two sisters, they live in New Jersey, but because of my action, I have no communication with them," he said. "I’m praying, hoping — hopefully when I do go back, my actions and my example will show them that I am not the same person I was before."
Once a month, he is allowed to speak with his mom in Pakistan through a counselor. The rest of the time, he writes his family letters or sends them examples of how he has changed, including results from his schooling.
“That shows them I’m using my time more effectively and I see hope at the end of the day now,” he said. “I think they are more receptive to me now and it could happen. I could bring the family back together.”
Ahmed said his four years in RTA helped him learn that while he must accept the mistakes he has made in the past, he can continue to work toward a better future.
“You have to earn it,” Ahmed said. “It may seem like I’m expecting for somebody just give it to me, but I believe by doing more work and sincerely earning it, you feel more complete, you feel more satisfaction in this way. It’s a life skill which we can use for the rest of our life, regardless of what culture we are in.”
On the day of the final performance, the cast brought out a medley of emotions among the inmate audience — laughing, heckling, cheering on their friends and in the end, a standing ovation.
“You look like a Puerto Rican leprechaun,” Mills’ character jokes as he pulls on the green, prison-issue shirt of another character that was just released from Green Haven. The audience, most of whom were also also dressed in their state greens, erupt in laughter.
Although many audience members were visitors to the prison, including local politicians, friends of RTA directors and benefactors that support the program, the actors weren’t allowed to invite their family to the final production.
Instead, they looked to their fellow inmates for support.
It was clear the play’s themes resonated with the inmate audience members, who have had their own experiences with the death of a loved one, gang violence, searching for work after conviction, drug overdoses, growing up in a broken home and asking forgiveness from friends, all of which were a part of the script.
The many lines punctuating race drew the biggest reaction from the inmate audience, who were mostly Hispanic and Black, mirroring the demographics on the stage.
In a darker moment, Striplin’s character speaks on how being bullied for his size affected him while growing up in foster care. As he retells the emotional story, it’s clear the actor on stage was no longer a character, but Striplin himself speaking from the heart.
The audience reflects in silence.
The cast ended with a beautifully sung musical number, highlighting themes of brotherhood and camaraderie. Arm-in-arm, it became clear that the RTA program was the actors’ own "Cafe of the Heart."
“Our RTA motto is make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em think — and I believe we did all three,” Joseph Striplin said after the performance. “You’re offering a gift to people and to have them thank you and acknowledge you for it, it’s a wonderful thing.”
The actors rode high for nearly an hour following the performance, during which time the correction officers gave them a rare reprieve from the tight schedule to mingle with the visitor audience. They thanked guests for coming and shook their hands.
“The show went great,” Mills said, elated. “I actually met someone who came up to me and told me it was very emotional because he said that the character that I play basically embodies who he is.”
But the experience was bittersweet as the conclusion of a performance marks the end of an era for the inmates. They’ll rest for a couple of weeks and then reconvene again with workshops, but another year will pass before they can perform a full play again.
“For me, it’s a difficult moment," Striplin said. "You just go back to what is considered normal in here, so I get a little sad. I get a little down. It feels like I’m missing something, like I’m leaving something behind."
For Farhan Ahmed and Alkim Mills, “Café of the Heart” was their final curtain call with RTA as they both prepare to be transferred to a different facility in the late spring to achieve their associate’s degrees.
"This is not just like a final show; this is like a final 'goodbye Green Haven,'" Mills said. “But it’ll always be with us — everything we’ve learned here. All the skills that we’ve gained from this program, it doesn’t just leave here."
While Ahmed is excited to send a recorded version of the play home to his mom in Pakistan, he said he worries that because of the move, he won’t have anything to show his continued progress to his family.
“I’ll be more dependent on education now, trying to apply for a [Bachelor's degree] and show[ing] them from our college education that we are doing something productive,” Ahmed said.
Mills added, “Sometimes you just have to go. Even when you’re hurt, you’re going to another place. Change is good.”